Celebrity Interview: Emma Donoghue, Screenwriter for Critically Acclaimed ROOM, Discusses Bestselling Novel and Film

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ROOM, from FilmNation Entertainment and A24, after winning the People’s Choice Award at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival opened in select cities with critics everywhere continuing to fan the Awards season buzz for its weighty and honest portrayals.

Emma Donoghue, the author of the bestselling novel for which the screenplay is adapted, took the time during the recent Los Angeles leg of the film’s media day to talk about the process, making  the film and working with Lenny Abrahamson, the director.

Speaking On The Idea and Creating The Scene

Janet Walker: Explain how you narrowed the original details times two, basically. I read where you simultaneously or very soon after wrote the screenplay.

Emma Donoghue: After writing the book.

JW: And it was based on this story of captivity. This 24 years of captivity is a lot of time.

ED: All I took from the Fritzel case was the idea of raising a child in a locked room. I consciously changed everything about it. Because I didn’t wanted to write about someone’s real life pain I didn’t want that kind of novel. I’ve often wrote factual bio-fiction but it’s all been set 100’s of year ago. It feels much safer. You wouldn’t do that with someone contemporary.

So I made it just seven years, one child only, the captors not related to her. I chose an above ground shed with natural light rather than a dungeon. And in all the real kidnapping cases there are typically additional horrors like beatings and all sorts of extra psychological cruelties, a lack of air in the case of the Fritzel family.

I stripped away all those extra horrors and made it a best case scenario, where they had enough food, Vitamin pills and where the mother has been able to shield the child from the captor by keeping him hidden away. I didn’t want to hang on those horrors. I wanted to make it a situation in which Jack pretty much has all he needed except freedom.

I wanted a test case scenario what if your child hood was safe, perfectly loved, you full of fun, you got your mom there but you didn’t have the world. And when the child is a really young baby I think it can work and when they are 20 it would be horrible. So the question becomes at exactly what moment Ma decides it’s worth jeopardizing Jack’s safety to order give him freedom.

JW: And do you think that was a psychological moment that pivotal moment or based on the fact that he was out of work for six months.

ED: That’s an additional trigger. One of the things Ma fears is that Jack will actually start to like Old Nick and think he has a father figure and she dreads that.  And in real kidnapping cases clearly the captor did take on pseudo fathering role and I think that would been extra horror for the mother. And when he brings the present that is one big threat in the status quo and when Ma thinks Jack could hero worship this man. And so she really wants to keep them at a distance. But is also partly Jack just is getting old enough obviously she doesn’t want him to live in there forever but a really young child might not be able to help here with the game as it were, of escaping so it really is just choosing a moment when thing are getting unstable and where she thinks Jack just might be old enough to understand.

On the Making of the Film

JW: Where you on set?

ED: I visited a lot. Yes. I was really lucky that they chose to film it in Toronto and I live in London, Ontario right down the road so I went there about once a week and I got to sample most of the locations.

JW: What about handling re-writes or other details and describe that experience?

ED: I’ve been really lucky that Lenny has let me stay very involved and I was involved in developing the project and then as Executive Producer. So then they included me I was a voice at the table in discussions about casting, particularly casting so many Canadians because I knew quite a lot of Canadian actors over the years. 

There was never any one final script because Lenny would simply email me and say ‘read a bit of that there or what do you think there?’ Even in post-production he was emailing me saying we need a new voice over so through email and through his visits to Canadian we’ve had a very close working relationship which I’ve been given to understand is not the normal case. I think this is the first great relationship and I’m sure it will never be like this again and it has been such a pleasure. And I’ve learned so much at his feet.

Casting Jacob Tremblay

JW: I can understand that. Brie talked about her casting process and we never heard about the casting process for Jake. And you said you were involved  . . .so?

ED: They looked at hundreds of boys. And I got to see a lot of links to their audition videos. That is one way you can access a lot of child nowadays. To me Jake’s audition just really stood out partly because it was sheer confidence he has such a relish for acting. He finds it fun.

So there was no sense of a child we had to talk into it. When we were on set we never felt this child is having a long hard winter of it. And such a nice kid. Everything about the situation Jake is in you think should turn him into a monster and it just hasn’t. He’s just a nice natural kid.

JW: He seems like a nice, natural kid.

Working with Lenny Abrahamson

JW: The notes, of course, said you got a letter from Lenny Abrahamson. He got the book, loved the book, and thought it could be a screenplay. What did he say to you in the letter?

ED: It was really detailed. It was like a really smart review of the book. He got everything. He got the reference to Plato’s Cave. The man is just super smart. It was a really well written letter as well. I mean the man is as bookish as I am (laughter). But also it showed great confidence.

He described how he would film the sequence in which Ma is kind of depressed with her head under the pillow and Jack has to go about the day alone and it plunged into detail and there was none of this playing it safe. His cards were on the table just as I had been. And so I think that kind of honesty was a great way to starting our relationship because it mean from the beginning we’ve been talking in great deal about making the film instead of stalling.

And he was perfectly happy to start with my script. I was so caught up in the process. It was so collaborative. Not just with Lenny. The actors made great suggestions for lines they should say. The production designer I hadn’t realize how crucial design would be; the editor we had him there right through production he was editing as we were going along. One entire sequence set in the police station the editor suggested we didn’t need it. He said it was the same type of beat as in the hospital so we cut that.

On ROOM’s Special Touches, Location and The Telling of Time

JW: As the author of the screenplay who decided on the smallest details such as moving the setting to Akron or Ohio?

ED: Yea, yea in the book we don’t specify.  It turns out to have the uniform of a police force there has to be a city name in there. There are no generic police forces. I had no strong preference I felt it should be the Louisianan Bayou or any place where there was distinct accent but I said make it small city America and they went for Ohio, partly because it had a waterfront like Ontario and partly for its demographic.

JW: I noticed many things were incorporated into the screenplay. Brie’s character Ma is able to keep a traditional sense of growing up. The movie up and its Jack’s fifth birthday. But there is no calendar. She has him measured up against the wall, marking his growth. Things that she would have incorporated from her own childhood. But there is no real telling of time. 

ED: She’s got a watch and sort of looks at it nervously and the convention is that when the captor does come, he comes at 9:00pm every night and I have to get him into the wardrobe by 9:00o’clock. Yes, but I know what you mean. She has to use whatever limited information she has, such as the weather seen from the skylight. She has to guess about things. I suspect she would have kept a mental note of every day.

One thing I was trying to get out in the book and the screenplay what are the elements of family that make family work. Your family doesn’t have to look like the ones in movies to work but things like rituals, like doing the certain things every day, marking special days, a feeling of mutual support, and a feeling that your life is someone in your own hands, that you’re not passive victims. I think very successful families have these elements in common and so yes Ma is passing on to Jack things she learned in her own childhood but she also, you’re taller every year and telling him its his birthday even if she didn’t have presents to give him. And I think those private rituals between them or even when they do the laundry, those habits, she is turning it into something positive.

Awards Season Buzz

JW: ROOM’s been mentioned in possible awards season everywhere actors, directors and of course the screenplay will be part of that so what’s your thoughts?

ED: The great thing about all this buzz it hat it make people take the film seriously and not just some wired indie with a dark premise. So I feel about it the same way I felt when the book was short listed for the Booker Prize the longer period of buzz the better. I could care less about the final results. The important thing is getting taken seriously in the discussion about what films this year really matter.

ROOM stars Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Sean Bridges and Tom McCamus and is playing in select cities and expands nationwide in early November.

ROOM is a powerful portrayal of hope, of faith, of believing when all circumstances attempt to beat you into the negative submission controlling prison. 

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